Nikāya in the Sutta Pitaka

January 7, 2016; revised August 25, 2019

1. The Tipitaka or the Pāli Canon of Buddha Dhamma (Buddhism) consists of three major sections or “baskets” called “pitaka” (Tipitaka is three pitaka). They are Sutta pitaka, Vinaya pitaka, and the Abhidhamma pitaka.

  • The Sutta pitaka consists of five sections called “nikāya.” The Wikipedia is wrong to say that nikāya means “volume” in Pāli (and also what is meant by the five types of nikāya); see, Nikāya
  • Nikāya comes from “ni” + “kāya” where kāya means our volitions and actions initiated via the six sense inputs, like in “kāyānupassanā” where one is mindful of how to respond to those sense inputs. Here, “ni” means to cease (nikmeema in Sinhala means freed) and thus nikāya means “path to Nibbāna.” At Nibbāna, one has stopped all kāya.

2. All suttā (note that plural of sutta is suttā) are in those five nikāyas (Diga, Kuddhaka, Majjima, Samyutta, and Anguttara), based on the five types of people. All humans are in five general types based on their sansaric habits and capabilities. They are called “indriya types”: saddha, viriya, sati, samādhi, paññā. (Note that “indriya” here is different from the sense types such as cakkhu indriya, etc., as discussed in #6 and #7 below).

  • Diga Nikāya is mainly for those with predominant saddha indriya who need detailed explanations. These are long (diga, pronounced “dheega“, which means long in Pāli and Sinhala). For example, the Maha Staippatana Sutta in the Diga Nikāya provides detailed instructions on how to be mindful and practice anapana.
  • Suttas in the Kuddhaka Nikāya (“ku” + “uddaka” where “ku” is keles or defilements, and “udda” means to remove) are short and concise. They provide brief instructions for those with high wisdom (pañña indriya).
  • Majjima Nikāya has “middle length” suttā that provide instructions at a level in between those in the Diga Nikāya and the Kuddhaka Nikāya. It is more suitable for those with dominant viriya indriya. Note here that Majjima means “middle,” but Majjimā — as in Majjimā patipadāhas a deeper meaning of “abstaining from getting intoxicated”; see, “Majjima Patipada – Way to Relinquish Attachments to this World.”

3. The suttā in the Samyutta Nikāya are focused on explaining “san,” which is a critical word in the foundation of Buddha Dhamma; see, “What is “San”? Meaning of Sansara (or Samsara)“.

  • Here Samyutta comes from “san” + “yutta” where yutta means “consists of.” It natural to pronounce as “Samyutta” than “sanyutta.” This is true of many combined words with “san” (like samsāra, Sammā = “san” +”“)).
  • Suttā in the Samyutta Nikāya are more suitable for those with dominant sati indriya.

4. Suttas in the Anguttara Nikāya are said to be more ideal for those with dominant samādhi indriya.

  • Anguttara comes from “anga” + “uttara” where “anga” means parts or components and “uttara” means “predominant or principle.” Therefore, the suttā in the Anguttara Nikāya focus on fundamental principles and are also relatively short. These suttā are more suitable for people who can quickly get to samādhi.
  • These categories help explain why Diga and Majjima nikāya suttā are the ones that are mostly in use today. Most people today fall into the categories of those with the saddha and viriya indriya dominant.

5. It is also important to point out a different usage of the term “nikāya.” Among the Theravāda nations of Southeast Asia and Sri Lanka, bhikkhus (and the temples they reside in) belong to several different groups or nikāyas.

  • For example, in Sri Lanka, different temples belong to three types of nikāya: Siam, Ramanya, and Amarapura.
  • They are all Theravāda, and there is no real difference among them as far as the doctrine is concerned. When one visits a temple, it is not possible to say to which nikāya it belongs.

6. The word indriya comes in two contexts. “Indriya” means “dominant” in some contexts. Here, the six types of dominant sense faculties are indriya: cakkhu, sōta, jivha, ghāna,kāya, and manō.

  • Modern science deals with only five physical senses of eyes, ears, tongue, nose, and body.
  • Scientists believe that our brains randomly produces our thoughts. That will be proven to be incorrect in the future.
  • Mana indriya — located in the brain — is the sixth and most important one according to Buddha Dhamma. It detects dhammā from the “nāma lōka“; see, “Our Two Worlds: Material and Mental” and “What are Dhamma? – A Deeper Analysis.”
  • Rupa are eleven types but are in two main categories (olarika or dense and sukuma or fine). Those above the sudddhātthaka level belong to the material world or “bhauthika lōka“). Those below the sudddhātthaka level (dhammā) belong to the mental world or “nāma lōka“. The five physical senses detect those rupa above the sudddhātthaka level. The mana indriya detects those below the sudddhātthaka level (dhammā). See, “Our Two Worlds: Material and Mental.”

7. The other use of indriya is with categorizing people by their dominant characteristics and capabilities (gati). For some people, it is easy to grasp Dhamma concepts. That is because they had cultivated the Path in their previous lives, and thus have higher wisdom (pañña).

  • Some others have also cultivated the Path mainly via just following precepts, but have high confidence in Buddha Dhamma. They are said to have their saddha indriya dominant.
  • Some have the sati indriya dominant; they can focus on a given concept than others.
  • We all are familiar with some people who have the viriya indriya dominant; they are the “never give up” type, who seem to have inexhaustible energy levels.
  • Some others have meditated and possibly got into jhanas in previous lives and have the samādhi indriya dominant.

8. Finally, there is an excellent website that has the complete Sutta Pitaka with all Pāli suttā: Sutta Central

  • That site also has the complete Vinaya and Abhidhamma Pitaka as well (in Pāli).
  • Sutta Central also has Sanskrit sutras, which are, of course, Mahāyāna.
  • The Chinese Agama suttā are also at this site (in Chinese). As I understand, they are very close to Theravāda suttā. Those translations to Chinese from Theravāda happened before the appearance of Mahāyāna sutras. I would appreciate feedback from persons who are proficient in both Chinese and English, as to whether my understanding is correct.

Next, “Sutta Learning Sequence for the Present Day

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